Good things come to an end. But sometimes in Pittsburgh they get replaced by better things — better as defined by generations that bestow those things upon the world — which at the end are not necessarily environmentally friendlier, just more efficient.
Street cars, the romanticized predecessors of much-hated-by-motorists-today Port Authority buses, were a big breakthrough for Pittsburgh when they came about.
They were so popular that overcrowding was a frequent complaint brought to the attention of the Pittsburgh Railways Co. operating the street cars. Sociable germs in the winter, smoking drivers and passengers, ladies exchanging latest gossip, vendors pushing their products — you could find it all in a Pittsburgh street car. To score a seat was an accomplishment, attempts to get out of the crowded trolley were compared to assassination.
In 1918, at its peak, the Pittsburgh Railways Co. operated 99 trolley lines running along 600 miles of track.
They were loved for convenience and affordability, they were signs of progress in the city in the beginning of the 20th century. They were sometimes luxurious… At some point there was a talk about a double-decker trolley cars, but after a failed experiment with a double-decker motorized street car, that experiment was abandoned. They didn’t quite work here, because — as the caption of the photo we found says — they made passengers dizzy and some of the tender-hearted even ‘flew over to the front’ of the car as the driver jammed on the breaks.
They were hated. Hated by auto owners, by jaywalkers, by people who never used them, a familiar sentiment one observes today towards PAT buses.
Wars between operators of the street cars and automobiles were frequent and heated. In 1934, operators of the street cars were channeling their wrath on pages of the Post-Gazette because they were sick and tired of those occasions when it was necessary to re-route street cars to avoid parked automobiles that blocked the tracks. There were traffic tie-ups that lasted for hours. Those violations… and strong-worded complaints were well documented by the Post-Gazette but the Pittsburgh police department had no way to enforce the rules.
“The machine blocked the tracks used by the Crosstown-Bedford and Charles street lines, the former one of the busiest in the city,” an article in the Post-Gazette detailed an incident.
“The operator of the first street car to attempt to use the tracks appealed to a nearby traffic policeman but the latter said he could not do anything. Then an inspector for the Pittsburgh Railways Co. sped to the scene to see why the traffic was blocked. He could not do anything, either.
“Meanwhile, the street cars were re-routed over Liberty avenue to Fancourt street to Duquesne way to the Sixth street bridge, operators reporting that they were delayed 15 minutes by the change. An emergency crew of the Railway Co. cleared up the difficulty by attaching chains to the sedan and dragging it off the tracks with their truck.”
But as the automobile industry boomed across the country, Pittsburgh was no exception. More and more Americans could buy cars, afford a home in the suburban areas. And Pittsburgh fell out of love with its street cars. Congestion became a big, big problem.
In the 1940s, two New York engineers and traffic experts, Robert Moses and W.S. Menden argued what’s best for Pittsburgh. They conducted surveys and wrote reports. The Menden report insisted that “efficient, speedy mass transportation into and out of Pittsburgh’s Golden Triangle must be based upon a high-speed modern trolley car system.”
In contrast, the Moses report concluded that trolleys were the reason for Pittsburgh’s traffic difficulties.
“Street car are obsolete in most large cities throughout the countries. Buses are being substituted practically everywhere…
“Street cars are clumsy, relatively immobile, and greatly impede traffic.
Unless there is something altogether extraordinary in the street car situation in Pittsburgh which does not meet the eye and which we have been unable to fathom, it would seem desirable to prepare for the ultimate abandonment of trolleys in favor of buses and to immediately re-study the possibility of partial consolidation of lines and so-called ‘short-looping’ in the Triangle…”
In the end, Moses and buses won. Twenty years after the reports, the Port Authority started adding bus lines. Trolley cars were being phased out.
But as it happens often, good things come back sometimes or, better yet, get re-introduced in their new iterations. Today, Pittsburghers are cozying up to the intracity rail lines once again. Today the T service is a deemed success due to demand. Maybe we see more of trolley lines in the years to come, especially when gas prices go back up?